South Florida teen making a splash in water polo
Ashleigh Johnson still fights her four siblings for the remote control and the house computer. Two weeks ago, the 13-year-old was also fighting for a medal in water polo at the Junior Pan American Games in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Johnson, who will be a freshman at Ransom Everglades High School in South Florida this fall, got that medal — a silver — while bringing a fresh face to the sport.
She is an anomaly when it comes to water polo, an Olympic sport that many compare to soccer being played in the water. Most elite players reside on the West Coast — and few are African-American.
Johnson, who was born in Florida of Jamaican descent, hopes to change all that. This year, the goalie is the only African-American on any of the six U.S. teams — youth, junior and national for women and men. The youngest member of her youth team, she has already started turning heads on the national and international level.
“She has all the physical tools to continue to progress to higher and higher levels,” said Tom Whittemore, an assistant coach for the U.S. youth team. “She’s tall, has long arms and legs, and has great explosiveness.”
Guy Baker, the director of the UCLA water polo program and coach of the U.S. women’s national team, is tracking Johnson’s progress. And the University of Arizona recently wrote a letter to Johnson to express its interest.
In Brazil, Johnson averaged 13 blocks in starting three games, including the final against Canada. Though the U.S. lost 13-7, she twice blocked 5-meter penalty shots in which the goalie faces one shooter.
“She’s mature, she’s focused and she wants it,” said Carroll Vaughan, Johnson’s club team coach. “She pushes herself.”
Johnson stood out from the moment she started swimming four years ago. Her mother wanted to get her five children into sports to keep them out of trouble, and all of them were attracted to a club water polo team coached by Vaughan.
Within her first year, Johnson pushed herself into the men’s open practices, competing against players that were sometimes twice her age.
Vaughan said adapting to challenges is one of Johnson’s strengths.
It’s something she’s had to do since an early age growing up in a single-parent household. Donna Johnson didn’t always have the money to send her daughter on water polo trips across the country. So she and Ashleigh did fundraisers with her club team to pay the way.
Travel to local tournaments also posed problems because of her mother’s work schedule. On the days her mom couldn’t make it, Ashleigh would travel with Vaughan.
“It’s been tough,” Donna Johnson said.
But through her mother’s help and her own persistence, Ashleigh has developed impressive physical skills.
“Although it may not be as obvious because she is a goalie, she also has great swim speed and an extremely strong throwing arm,” Whittemore said.
Those attributes allow the 5-foot-8, 135-pounder to also play the field. Being a highly competitive middle child doesn’t hurt, either.
“Her and her brothers and sisters are always fighting,” Donna Johnson said.
That’s not surprising, considering the small differences in age and that they all play water polo.
“We fight for the front seat all the time, but I don’t always win,” Ashleigh said.
That doesn’t stop her and neither does the lack of diversity in USA Water Polo.
“I don’t think many African-Americans would just notice me playing on this level, but hopefully I can get better so that it would bring more attention to it,” she said. “I think if other African-American people saw me playing then maybe they would try it out.”
Vaughan took that into consideration when she first started coaching the Johnsons.
“It’s kind of like this old wives’ tale, in swimming also, that (African-Americans) had never been taught how to swim when they were little,” Vaughan said.
“It’s still considered a country club sport.”
Johnson, who is the first African-American on the youth national team, isn’t bothered that more may be riding on her shoulders than just blocking shots.
But the thoughts don’t seem to cross her mind.
“I want to play in the Olympics,” she said. “I think I will carry it all just fine.”